The annual South by Southwest, or SXSW, festival kicked off Monday. The virtual crowds will be in huge contrast to the thousands who have attended the festival in person over the last 30 years. In 2019, SXSW was estimated to have brought more than $300 million to Austin, including $200+ million in direct economic impact.
A year ago, Austin Mayor Steve Adler canceled SXSW, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Adler told Texas Standard that he spoke with mayors of other cities in the U.S. and around the world about how the pandemic was already impacting their communities.
“In the United States, the biggest outbreak at the time was in Seattle, and I think we had 5,000-6,000 people coming [to SXSW] from Seattle,” Adler said. “It was a horrible choice to have to make.”
Adler says a conversation with a California mayor made an impact on him. The official advised that when presented with options for dealing with the pandemic ranging from least, to most drastic, Adler should choose the most robust response. The mayor told Adler that if the strongest option was reasonable, it was the right choice because the virus was going to spread very quickly.
Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the city of Austin over its ongoing mask mandate. Though the state has lifted mask mandates and business capacity restrictions, Austin has left its rules in place. A judge has stayed the state’s actions to end Austin’s mandates until the two sides can argue the case in court.
“We promised our community that we would follow the doctors and the date,” Adler said. “You can continue to open up businesses and wear masks, and open up schools and wear masks. So it doesn’t slow down that activity. It helps preserve it.”
Adler praises his city’s residents for their ability to “pull together” in the face of the pandemic. And he’s proud of Austin’s low COVID mortality rate.